Sunday, February 28, 2010

Stories for the Folks Who Work the Cash Registers of Our Lives

Tom Loughlin over at A Poor Player has posted a emotionally true post about "Battling Ennui," expressing feelings that are all too common to people of his and my age, people who have devoted their lives to a particular something and now are looking for the next something to engage them. This, by the way, is the type of thing that youthful playwrights cannot write about empathically, having never experienced it. The young are still thrashing around with possibilities, while we are searching for meaning in what we've done and seeking the new thing that will enhance that meaning. Had Arthur Miller written Death of a Salesman at 54 instead of 34, there would have been a lot more sympathy for Willy and a lot less for Biff, I suspect. Salesman is a young man's play.  Instead, at 49 Miller wrote After the Fall, a play that looks inward at his life. It is a middle-aged play.
    At the end of his musings, Tom suddenly lifts out of his ennui, and writes something that is so clear, so true it struck deep in my heart:
If there is anything that is of interest to me these days, it seems to be the people I meet who have absolutely nothing to do with theatre or academia. The man doing my bathroom is a great guy and wonderful to talk to. He knows so many local people that I feel jealous. I ate lunch yesterday with a complete stranger at a local diner and had an interesting conversation about next to nothing. He was just a plainspoken, friendly guy. I always have these wonderful little conversations with Angela,  the woman at the cash register in the student center where I get my bacon/egg/cheese sandwich some mornings. She talks about her vacation in Florida and how her husband is down there fixing up their small trailer, getting it ready for their retirement (retirement!). And Sue over in Cranston Dining Hall always asks about my son Eric, with whom she worked for a few months. They have their worries and concerns, I am sure, but at least they don’t appear to be trying to impress anyone.
I wish I knew how to create theatre for these people. I’m depressed that I don’t. They deserve better of me.
 These two paragraphs go to the center of what CRADLE is all about: trying to create theatre that has something to say to people who are just living life day to day. Not high-flying intellectuals, not artists, but just the folks who work the cash registers of our lives.

They deserve better. Who's thinking about them?


Paul Mullin said...

Agreed, agreed, Scott. We should have the people we ride the bus with and buy our coffee from in mind when we wright our plays.

Just wanted to chime in on the Miller. I see your point re: After the Fall versus Death of a Salesman but After, while stunning is deeply flawed and practically unstageable, while The Price is where the real juice is. A play that astounds in real-time. It's everything Miller was trying to do in those earlier two without the flash and bang and bathos.

Freeman said...

Might I recommend GLEE CLUB?

RVCBard said...

And THIS is why I'm resisting the MFA.

Scott Walters said...

Paul -- I agree that "The Price" is a better play, one that also shows a mature worldview. But "After the Fall" reflects the inner crisis that often befalls people of a certain age.

RVCBard -- Indeed, the MFA can take you away from the working class. Are you writing for them?

RVCBard said...


I wouldn't say writing for them, but certainly writing from that POV because that's how I was raised since that's where my parents and most of my family come from (rural, working class, Black, Southern).

To be honest, the urban Northeastern yuppie/hipster demographic is pretty foreign to me. From an experiential perspective, I have more in common with who those same individuals would call rednecks than I do with other NYLACHI theatre artists. However, as an artist, I do like experimenting with form and content in ways that would be . . . exceedingly difficult to get produced in my fairly conservative hometown.

That and I have my own reasons for moving to NYC as well.

joshcon80 said...

"The young are still thrashing around with possibilities..."

If that's true than I'd hate to imagine how depressing and fatalistic my plays will be at 50 years-old. Sheesh.

That aside, in order for there to be plays for working class people there would have to be working class playwrights. I actually think there are tons of playwrights writing plays for middle class audiences. You just won't ever see their plays because institutional theater is largely ignoring them in favor of rich folks and MFAs.

AngieNCSC said...

It strikes me that Tom writes, and you, Scott, echo, the phrase "create theatre." I propose that creating theatre may be different from, though of course not unrelated to, writing plays. Surely we're not suggesting that "Death of a Salesman" isn't appropriate fodder for the folks Tom describes? But perhaps a theatre can create ways for them to feel like it is meant for them?

Ken said...

I've followed this discussion over several blogs, and while I certainly want the demographic of the theater-going audience to widen, the idea that there is some specific kind of theater fit for the working class strikes me as a bit patronizing. It inevitably sounds as if we're saying we have to dumb down our work for fear of going over the heads of the people who "work the cash registers of our lives." Do we necessarily have to do a different kind of theater? "Waiting for Godot" has often been performed in prisons, to great acclaim and obvious audience engagement; in Shalespeare's day, his works were regularly seen (and one assumes, enjoyed) by people far lower on the societal ladder than even the poorest person in America today. Does there really have to be a special kind of story told in order to hold the interest of people who work blue-collar jobs, or who never got past high school? I don't think so. They need only to be directed to the theater--that's why I feel the impetus is more on Artistic Directors, and people in the Subscription/Membership Department of our theaters to reach out to these constituencies, and let them know what our theaters are presenting, and that they should come and check it out for themselves. Through discounts and other outreach programs, we can fill the theater seasts with people who have never been there before.